The Ministry of Rural Development and Plan International Cambodia (PIC) have joined forces to launch a 10-month ‘Healthy Start’ initiative.

The project aims to enhance expertise and coordination in rural water, sanitation and hygiene at both the national and sub-national levels, with the goal of helping three more provinces achieve open defecation free (ODF) status.

The agreement was formalised on September 12, building on a partnership between the ministry and PIC from 2021 to 2023.

Operating within the technical coordination and implementation framework of the Department of Rural Healthcare, the joint effort has already yielded significant outcomes in rural water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

Lun Sayteng, chief of the ministry’s rural healthcare department, said the cooperation has a significant impact on strengthening capacities and coordination of clean water and hygiene in the country.

He highlighted improvements in rural hygiene. “By mid-2023, Cambodia had achieved ODF status in six provinces, benefiting millions of people by granting them access to basic sanitation services and WASH facilities. This, in turn, has improved their health and provided them with greater access to opportunities, particularly in the areas of education and employment,” he said.

The 10-month project is scheduled to run from September 1 of this year to June 30, 2024.

It involves a budget of $52,000 to train 200 leaders and technical staff at both the national and sub-national levels.

The project’s primary goal is to directly benefit five million people across three provinces and districts.

“The project’s main activities include the ODF Roadmap for Cambodia 2023-25 and ODF verification guidelines, as well as the development of menstrual hygiene management guidelines,” said PIC.

“We also provide support to the technical team responsible for rural water supply and sanitation, along with ODF planning efforts in Siem Reap, Ratanakkiri, Stung Treng, Kampong Cham and Tbong Khmum provinces,” it added.

The project will provide support to the national team for conducting ODF verifications in Siem Reap, Kampong Cham, and Tbong Khmum provinces in 2024.

It will also assist the team in conducting verifications in Phnom Penh, Preah Sihanouk province, and one district in Takeo province, helping them in achieving ODF status.

Furthermore, it will aid the Phnom Penh municipal rural development department in finalising and confirming the Phnom Penh ODF event.

Yi Kimthan, PIC’s deputy country director for programmes, highlighted that the project, with support from rural healthcare departments in the target provinces, has had an impact on millions of children and community members.

He noted that this includes disabled girls, women, other vulnerable groups and ethnic populations in northeastern provinces.

He also pointed out disparities in access to drinking water and sanitation services between urban and rural populations, variations in education levels, family sizes and gender, particularly in remote areas of provinces like Ratanakkiri, Stung Treng, Mondulkiri and Preah Vihear.

Regarding sanitation, Kimthan mentioned that there is insufficient data on safely managed sanitation, and the promotion of menstrual hygiene management remains limited.

He pointed out that although progress has been made in rural sanitation, challenges persist.

Therefore, there is a need to strengthen and expand cooperation to address these challenges and fill the gaps in services in rural areas.

Those without access to these services are often the most challenging to reach, as they tend to be the poorest, living in remote or difficult-to-access areas.

According to PIC, there has been a slight increase in access to safely managed drinking water, rising from 16 per cent in 2015 to 18 per cent in 2020.

While progress has been observed in services for rural schools, with 75 per cent having access to drinking water and 67 per cent to hygiene, there remains a gap in basic sanitation, with only 32 per cent coverage.